It’s just over a year since we finished an ambitious project to realign a section of the River Chelt in Gloucestershire to improve its habitat value and make it more accessible to fish. I’ve been back to have a look how things are working out.
The River Chelt is a small tributary of the Severn. It rises on the Cotswold escarpment near Dowdeswell, flows through the middle of Cheltenham and joins the Severn at Wainlodes. Over its short length it changes from steep fast-flowing brook to a slowly meandering small river.
The project was carried out about a mile from the Chelt’s confluence with the River Severn, just before it passes under the A38. The river had been significantly modified here to enable the operation of the now redundant Norton mill. It had been straightened to increase the flow velocity and a small weir installed (photo below). The weir presented a significant obstacle to fish trying to swim upstream, while the steep banks offered little opportunity for wetland plants and animals.
During September and October of 2011 we realigned the course of the river to bypass the weir and straightened length. We created a new, meandering river channel, which would have been much closer to its original form, and a range of bank slopes.
In bypassing the weir we opened up a further 6km of the river upstream to fish and a hectare of wetland habitat was created alongside the river.
However, as you know,you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and I have to confess things did look a bit like a building site when we’d finished.
What a difference a year makes
Our new section of river has received a number of good tests over the last year. Repeated bouts of summer and winter flooding through 2012 and 2013 resulted in some very large amounts of water being forced through the new channel and in some cases exceeding its capacity and spilling into its floodplain (as it was designed to do).
The speed of plant establishment and growth has been amazing. Not only have the many small trees we planted with the help of local volunteers settled in well, there is already a good variety of wetland plants along the course of the realigned river.
It’s also very pleasing to see the diversity of habitat developing within the river. Areas of gravel and stones on the river bed should provide good spawning opportunities for fish while fresh silt deposits will be great for feeding birds. Part of the old channel was retained and now provides and excellent refuge for fish and insects.
We’ll monitor the progress of the site over the coming years to see what species of plants, fish and birds move in, but the initial signs are very promising. Indeed, as if to prove the point, as we arrived a large egret which had been feeding along the river, flapped lazily away!
Part of a much bigger plan
Our work on the Chelt is just one of hundreds of projects across the country aimed at improving our rivers. It’s all part of the plans to deliver the objectives of the Water Framework Directive which requires us to improve the health of rivers.
We’ve identified where the condition of rivers isn’t as good as it should be and the causes of the problems. There is a variety of issues affecting our rivers: man-made alterations to their shape and form (like here on the Chelt), obstructions like weirs, pollution from single point sources, pollution from run-off of chemicals, soils and nutrients, low flows and the presence of alien species. We’re working with partners to develop long-term plans to tackle them all.
Discover more in our interactive presentation: http://www.informsystem.com/livingwaters/livingwaters.htm